On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, “A Tech Resurrection Story,” Preet talked with tech journalist Kara Swisher about the shocking ouster and dramatic return of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. Swisher – as with many pundits over the last two weeks – acknowledged the similarities between Altman’s odyssey and Steve Jobs’s dramatic 1985 resignation from Apple. A closer look at the media response to Jobs’s scandalous departure reveals a familiar reckoning over the irresistibility of Silicon Valley celebrity and the shifting mores of American business culture.

A very brief summary of the oft-revisited particulars of Jobs’s Apple exit: In 1983, Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, day-to-day leader, and chairman, convinced PepsiCo veteran John Sculley to come aboard as CEO of his fast-growing, 5,000-employee computer firm. The disappointing 1984 returns on two new computer products, the Lisa and the Macintosh, soured the relationship between the two leaders, and Sculley lobbied the Board of Directors to remove Jobs’s control over day-to-day product management. Jobs, who was still only 30 years old, was infuriated and resigned on September 16th, bringing several influential employees with him. 

Unlike Altman, Jobs stayed away for almost a dozen years, building a computer company called NeXt that specialized in business and education desktops. In his spare time, he also co-founded Pixar Animation. Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 to spearhead the creation – among other things – of the iPod and iPhone. 

Altman clearly didn’t have to wait as long to come back to OpenAI. But if the paths of the two tech leaders’ respective alienations from their companies have seemingly diverged, the breathless press coverage of their initial falls from corporate grace have a ton in common. 

For one, pundits gave both Altman and Jobs chameleonic public profiles amid their controversies. The Atlantic, for example, has fashioned Altman as a betrayed Julius Caesar to the OpenAI Board’s Brutus, while memes on X positioned Altman post-rehiring as the belligerent Hollywood agent Ari Gold wreaking havoc on the popular HBO show Entourage. 

Jobs’s 1985 exit also sparked an overwhelming spate of cultural referents.

In Newsweek’s September 23rd, 1985 issue – the first after Jobs’s departure – writer Michael Rogers positioned the erstwhile chairman in a film noir mold, modeling his retreat to his Silicon Valley mansion to the reclusion of famed 1930s sex symbol Greta Garbo: 

Now Jobs has become a figure of mystery, living a Garbo-like existence in a sparsely furnished, $2 million, 25,000-square-foot mansion in the hills of Woodside. The view must be sobering: in the distance is his lost kingdom.  

Also on September 23rd, Washington Post journalist Michael Schrage, reflecting on the premiere of the CBS made-for-TV version of Arthur Miller’s tragic play Death of a Salesman, argued that Jobs, like Miller’s frustrated protagonist Willy Loman (played by Dustin Hoffman), was a tragic reminder of the limits of American idealism: 

Willy Loman and Steven Jobs, both salesmen, were done in by their illusions. At least Jobs has his millions. 

Even as writers gave Jobs various backward-looking cultural identities, they also positioned him as a product of his time – subject to an expanded and cynical bureaucracy that would have squashed past eccentric American dynamos. On October 1st, for example, Washington Post columnist Edwin Yoder, in his October 1st, 1985 column “Romanced Out,” argued that Henry Ford – despite being what Yoder somewhat euphemistically described as a “certified crank” (Note: Passionate racist and anti-Semite) – was able to continue his work at Ford due to the relative openness of the early 20th-century corporate leadership structure.

There was a time, at least, in the folklore of American business, when the fabled successes—the Apple stories of the past—reflected personal creativity and genius with staying power. Even those who were in some respects certifiable cranks—Henry Ford, for instance,—managed to stick around the companies that grew up around their genius. Increasingly, or so it seems to an unbusinesslike outsider, modern enterprises lose touch with their sometimes cranky creators. They soon immerse themselves in managerial complications, so that it is hard to see the product for packaging. Business, like the government it sometimes scorns, has become bureaucratic.  

Yoder argued that Jobs’s fall was reflective of an increasing desire for homogeneity and marketing prowess that had largely replaced the drive for innovation in the American corporation. Yoder ended on an ominous note, suggesting a larger battle between innovation and marketing-driven conformity yet to come:

His departure suggests again how hard it is for modern business to harness creativity and romance with the prosaic demands of marketing. Perhaps the outcome will give us a clue, at least, to which matters more. 

Yoder’s fellow Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson published a piece the following day entitled “Creativity and Control” that also positioned the Jobs schism as a larger indictment of the American business culture of the 1980s. The piece also appeared in the Post’s sister publication Newsweek as “Steve Jobs and Apple Pie.” 

Samuelson highlighted the media ubiquity of the Jobs news and argued that Jobs’s failed attempts to fight back against the increasingly soul-crushing dictates of American corporate culture reflected an eminently relatable quest: 

Why are we so fascinated with Steve Jobs? The reason has less to do with Jobs’s remaining importance to the computer industry—Apple’s influence is fast waning—than with his status as a fallen folk hero. The business of America is business, but Americans do not love business. Jobs was going to change that. He was going to rewrite the rules and prove that you didn’t have to surrender your individuality to succeed. His odyssey made him a celebrity because his dream is everyone’s dream.  

Sameulson extrapolated on just what it was the Jobs was fighting back against: 

Our individualistic culture coexists uneasily with its dependency on mass organizations. In the private economy roughly half of us work for companies with more than 500 employees. Our bureaucratic bosses inspire a love-hate relationship. We want a place to go in the morning, a regular paycheck, familiar faces and an appreciation of our work. Our organizations represent security and belonging. But they often enrage us with their organizational idiocies and imperatives. Their routines and demands regularly abuse our individuality and stifle our creativity.  

And he argued that Jobs’s poignant failure to transform the stultifying workplace had transformed him into a tragic hero: 

His wealth hasn’t brought him contentment, and his discontents seem utterly characteristic of our age. In a society that places immense value on work, his work has sent him on an endless rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows. 

In his summation, Samuelson tied Jobs’s descent into the particular idealism of computers, arguing that the devices themselves had outlived their initial idealism and had become a machine in service of managerial capitalism: 

America’s love affair with high tech has not merely been a celebration of new technologies. It has also embodied a yearning that, along with new technologies, better ways would come of reconciling our individuality to the inevitability of large organizations. Jobs and Apple symbolized these hopes. We subconsciously share in his disappointment and disillusion because we can recognize them in everyday life. Jobs has been a metaphor for our persistent cultural contradictions. What rivets our attention is the extravagance of his ambitions and despairs: they are as American as apple pie.  

Yet even as Samuelson was writing his dramatic prose, some Americans were getting irked by the sheer volume of Jobs op-eds. In the October 7th, 1985 issue of the computer magazine InfoWorld, columnist John Dvorak wrote a scathing Jobs takedown, “The Last Steve Jobs Column–Honest.”

Dvorak first called out Newsweek, which was nationally advertising its extensive Jobs coverage – including an in-depth interview, a sweeping feature, and the Rogers and Samuelson pieces – in newspapers under the heading “Showdown in Silicon Valley”: 

I hope this will be the last Steve Jobs column for years to come. After all, when Newsweek devotes eight solid pages to this guy, you have to assume that the publicity overkill will burn everyone out.  

Dvorak predicted that the Age of Jobs was over, and he made no bones about how he viewed the positioning of Jobs as a singular figure: 

Maybe when the smoke clears, we will have heard the last from Steve Jobs as guru, seer, visionary, and hapless victim, too. He’ll just be that rich guy in the big house in Woodside. He’ll go the way of the pet rock, electric carving knives, silly putty, Tiny Tim, and the three-tone paint job. Let’s hope so.  

As October 1985 wound down, however, public opinion still appeared at least anecdotally split on the significance of the Jobs story – and of the man’s future prospects: 

In the October 21st issue, Newsweek printed letters responding to their Jobs coverage extravaganza. New York’s Richard Einhorn was turned off by Jobs’s devil-may-care attitude toward the Apple board: 

Jobs is living in the past. Today’s with-it executives wouldn’t even dream of making decisions of import in such a crude fashion.” 

But Wilmette, Illinois’ Mari Ivener argued that Jobs had already changed the world, and that his legacy would continue to help Americans discover the wonders of computer technology: 

Although Jobs has resigned from Apple Computer, he need not worry about his spirit being exiled. In high school the word “computer” conjured up images of technological monsters until the day my father brought home one of the first Apple II’s. Soon I realized that computers weren’t threatening but were (to quote Jobs) ‘the most incredible invention’ of man.

Clearly, when all was said and done, Ivener’s idealistic positioning of Jobs squared much more with the remarkable comeback that would emerge over the next quarter century. Only time will tell whether Altman’s turbulent few weeks will be a footnote in an eventual Jobs-like story of redemption or a precursor to more dysfunction within Silicon Valley’s quest to develop generative A.I. The Altman saga, just like the 1985 Jobs moment, however, clearly signals a moment of intense internal reflection for a tech industry decidedly in flux. 

For more on Jobs and Silicon Valley’s mid-1980s moment of doubt, read Leslie Berlin’s 2017 Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age and my June 2022 Time Machine article “A Large-Scale Hangover from a Speculative Orgy’: The Pain of the Mid-1980s Computer Slump.”

And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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